Visiting Sderot with J Street U

In the theme of my most recent post about a day trip to Kusra, here is a recap of another trip I did recently this year.

Several months ago (yes, this post is VERY overdue), I went to Sderot with J Street U. Really, the trip was for college students, so I was sort of cheating but…oh well! They let me go and I was excited to participate in the day’s events.

Sderot is a city in the Western Negev, and it is the Israeli city that most closely borders Gaza. In fact, there is a military outpost in Sderot from which you can look out and see Gaza. Sderot is often used as an illustration of the ways in which the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict negatively impacts Israeli lives even if the death toll is much lower for Israelis than Palestinians.*

*Comparing the cumulative number of Israeli to Palestinian casualties as indicative of Israel using excessive fire power is, in my opinion, not a fair analysis because Hamas does not have any sort of alert or civilian protection system in place (in fact, quite the opposite as they often use civilians as human shields). On the contrary, Israel has devoted an enormous amount of resources – financial and otherwise – into establishing the most developed protective system in the world. I see it as a very unfortunate misuse of raw data when Israel is criticized by virtue of the numbers alone. 

Israelis living in Sderot deal with a constant sense of threat and, in many cases, trauma from living in an environment where they feel constantly at risk. On the tour I went on in Sderot, the group I was with learned that 20,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, and Sderot has born the brunt of these attacks. Unlike other places in Israel that have the benefit of a siren system that leaves a reasonable amount of time to get to a shelter (in Jerusalem, we have 90 seconds), Sderot is so close to Gaza that there is only about 15 seconds between rocket detection and when it will hit. Given the constant threat and lack of preparation time, Sderot has enacted a series of safety precautions that make the city look very different from other parts of Israel. For example, all of the bus stops are bomb shelters. Every building is required to have its own shelter attached, and outdoor communal areas are made to offer hiding spaces. For example, this park for children is made entirely out of bomb shelter material:

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Besides learning the general facts about life in Sderot, we also had the opportunity to look at some of the shrapnel and piping from rockets fired into Sderot from Gaza. The rockets are generally made from pipes (which are allowed into Gaza for city infrastructure) and filled with nails, marbles, etc. The explosive element is created from chemicals that are given to Gaza for the purpose of agriculture. This type of explosive doesn’t make such a huge explosion, but it creates a lot of collateral damage through the shrapnel.

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It was very powerful to see the ‘leftovers’ from these rockets, especially because it was so clear that were basically entirely made from materials intended for aid. I see this a very troubling ethical dilemma. Israel both allows international aid into Gaza and also provides much of the materials themselves. It seems to be a very sad irony that so many of these materials come back into Israel in the form of rockets, and it also poses a moral question about the boundaries of providing and permitting aid.

At the end of our visit, we met with a representative from an organization called Other Voice. This was a very interesting perspective to end the trip with. Other Voice seeks to find a peaceable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and they believe doing so requires a more conciliatory and compassionate perspective from Israelis. They believe that The Occupation is taking a psychological toll not only on Palestinians but, also, on Israelis in the sense that they have become numb to the abuse inherent within an occupation.

All in all, this was a very moving trip that left me with a lot to think about (and feeling very grateful that I have not lived my life in fear of constant rocket attack, planning my life around where I can get to within 15 seconds!).

Pirot v’yerakot: adventures in Israeli Dining

Oh Israel, your food is a splendor.

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Here’s the breakdown…

Foods that are better in the USA: pizza, yogurt, plain black coffee

Foods that are better in Israel: everything else

No, I am definitely not using hyperbole. Just look at this banana:

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I rest my case. 

One of my great Israeli adventures so far is venturing to pirot v’yerakot (fruit and vegetable) stands, selecting a few things I’m unfamiliar with, taking them home, putting them in my mouth, and consulting google to learn what I’m eating.

Last week I shared my encounter with prickly pears. This week, I mystery grabbed these:

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Turns out this is what a passionfruit looks like! I had only ever had passionfruit as part of a juice or smoothie – not on its own. You can eat it by scooping out the insides with a spoon (don’t lose the precious juice!). The outside shell is hard and relatively easy to separate the fruit from:

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Salatim (salads) are also a great part of Israeli cuisine. Salatim doesn’t refer to simply the mix of lettuce that we Americans refer to as salad. In Israel, salatim refers to a wide array of appetizer-like spreads, dips, pickled vegetables, and overall deliciousness. Nearly every Supersal (a large grocery store chain), mikolets (smaller grocery stores – almost like convenient stores), and small specialty shops (cheese, meat, bread, etc.) sells a selection of salatim that you can buy in various sizes. This week, I picked up a few salatim to try:

Matbuha (a spicy tomato dip, also sometimes called Turkish Salad):

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Eggplant with tahini:

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And I am now on my first second third tub of hummus (also considered a type of salatim). In defense of my hummus consumption, however, I will point out that one entire tub was consumed by Shabbat guests on Friday night. I had a group over for Shabbat dinner where I got to break out my kiddush fountain (you pour wine from the main kiddush cup into the ‘fountain’ which distributes the wine into several smaller cups):

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And purchased challot from the popular Jerusalem bakery, Marzipan:

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Also before Shabbat, I popped into a shop near my apartment that sells prepared meats, salatim, and side dishes. Observant families don’t cook on Shabbat, which requires a lot of preparation in advance for the weekly holiday. As a result, it’s common for many families to buy some prepared food to lighten the amount of preparation that’s required.

When I say prepared food, I’m not talking frozen meals or processed faux-meats. There are freshly cooked meats, vegetables, appetizers, and soups. I decided to buy a mystery foil-wrapped cylinder because for once in my life I don’t have to worry about what sort of meat could be inside (halleluyah for kosher everywhere!!).

When I got home, I opened up the foil and discovered this:

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It was some sort of phyllo dough encased ground meat/potato/onion dish. I cooked it in the oven for about 30 minutes and this is what came out inside…

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Yum! I had it with some very delicious (and long) green beans as well as the aforementioned salatim.

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And…what is more appropriate to close out my Israel food rave than Tim Tams?

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Okay, so they come in a package. And they’re actually made in Australia. And they are a far cry from any semblance of healthy. But ask anyone who has participated in an Israel summer program, Birthright, or school trip, and you will quickly learn that Tim Tams are an essential part of the Israel experience. The double-layered wafers with a chocolate cream center can be found on the front shelf of each Supersal, mikolet, and every other food-selling establishment. But, the magic of Tim Tams goes far beyond chocolate or cookie. The true love of a relationship with a Tim Tam comes in the consumption.

There is really only one right way to eat a Tim Tam.

Step 1: Get a glass of milk. Coffee is also acceptable and tea might do in a pinch.

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Step 2: Take a small bite from one corner of the Tim Tam:

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Step 3: Take a small bite from the opposite corner of the Tim Tam:

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Step 4: Dip one open corner into the milk/coffee, and put the other open corner into your mouth. Use the Tim Tam as a straw and suck until you taste the milk.

Step 5: Eat the Tim Tam – whose chocolately wafer has now absorbed the milk and become oh-so-juicy-and-delicious.

Step 6: Ecstasy

And, because I am not completely oblivious to the state of the world, some brief comments about life in Israel over the last week.

The mood was very heavy at the beginning of last week. Last Tuesday was Tisha B’av, an annual Jewish fast day that is described in the Torah as a day of crying and misfortune for all generations. This damnation is in response to the report of 12 spies who were sent to take a peek at the promised land and report back to the newly-freed-from-Egypt Israelites. While the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey, the spies came back with a negative report, saying that the people in the land were great and fierce and the Israelites should just turn back now since they would surely never be able to truly enter the land. Furious that the Israelites would so easily fall into grief and despair when the land had, in fact, been promised to them, God decreed that the Israelites would not enter the promised land until that generation died out, leading to the subsequent 40-year wander in the desert. The tragedy of the day – the 9th (tesha) day of the Hebrew month of Av – would also continue indefinitely through all generations. Hence, Tisha B’av. 

Interestingly enough, the day truly has been one of great sorrow for the Jewish people throughout history. It is on this day that both the first and second temples were destroyed in Jerusalem (some 657 years apart), Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and Spain in 1492 (Columbus sailed the ocean blue…no? different theme?), Germany entered WWI in 1914, formal approval was received for the Nazi “Final Solution” in 1941, and mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began in 1942.

Clearly, it’s not a good day. The mourning of the day is also intensified because of safety concerns resulting from the day being used as a target for terrorist attacks in recent years. This past Monday, just before the start of the fast, there were two attacks in Jerusalem including one that involved a stolen tractor plowing over a bus and killing one person. Monday also marked the day that Hamas resumed rocket attacks on Israel, breaking yet another ceasefire and resuming the war that many Israelis had hoped and believed was coming to an end. Beginning tonight at midnight, another ceasefire is supposed to go into effect…hopefully this will last.

In closing, I recommend this op-ed by the always brilliant and ever insightful Thomas Friedman.

“3,000 years with no place to be and they want me to give up my milk and honey. Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea, not the country but the dwelling of his majesty. Jerusalem, if I forget you, fire not gonna come from me tongue. Jerusalem if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.”
– Matisyahu